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How to Reform Republican Foreign Policy

Can the Republican Party’s foreign policy be saved? Or, at the very least, can the conservative foreign-policy establishment be reformed? As the question was debated [1] last [2] week [3], violence intensified in Gaza, Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 was shot down in Ukraine, and Iraq smoldered.

The welcome fact that a growing number of conservative thinkers and writers—along with a not insubstantial slice of the Republican base—judges George W. Bush’s foreign policy a failure may be a prerequisite for reform. But it is not sufficient for reform by itself.

For an aging conservative movement that has lacked a unified sense of purpose since the end of the Cold War, with the brief exception of a few years after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, the terror unfolding throughout the world can be massaged to fit a familiar, almost comforting script.

Israel is being attacked by her enemies. The Russian bear is on the loose. After the sectarian fighting in Iraq finally subsided toward the end of the Bush administration, the troubled country seems to be flying apart under his Democratic successor.

The narrative that the world is ablaze due to Barack Obama’s retrenchment, retreat, and penchant for leading from behind has a certain appeal. This is what happens, the argument goes, when the United States is governed by someone who is ashamed of American power.

All of this is a vast oversimplification, obviously, but busy voters don’t pore over Stratfor global intelligence reports when trying to make sense of the news. To many conservatives, this description of an often violent and seemingly chaotic world does the job as well as any competing explanation.

It is true that many big Republican donors are more hawkish—and less chastened by Bush-era failures—than the Republican rank-and-file. As Justin Logan put it [1] in The Federalist, “the portion of the GOP donor class that cares about foreign policy is wedded to a militaristic foreign policy, particularly in but not limited to the Middle East.”

But it is equally true that even today the arguments marshaled by reflexive hawks hit the right emotional buttons for the Republican grassroots in a way that more dovish conservatives’ appeals for caution, prudence, and restraint frequently do not. They easily position themselves on the side of America—freedom conservatives [4]!—while those who disagree are apologists for Vladimir Putin and Iranian mullahs, perhaps even “friends of Hamas [5].”

Glenn Beck has conceded [6] the Iraq invasion was a mistake. Fox News’s Megyn Kelly aggressively challenged [7] Dick Cheney on the war—“Time and time again, history has proven that you got it wrong as well in Iraq, sir”—and literally laughed at Dinesh D’Souza, who has tended to blame our foreign-policy problems on Kenyan anti-colonialism.

When it comes to people taken seriously by mainstream conservatives arguing that what went wrong in Iraq should guide U.S. foreign policy today, however, Rand Paul is practically by himself. (His father doesn’t have as broad an appeal among Republicans and most other Paul-aligned lawmakers are either more muddled on foreign policy or much less well known.)

Paul is doing the right thing by pointing out that our mistakes in Iraq are more Cheney’s than Obama’s, but he is taking a big political risk. As Ben Domenech points out [2], “the real danger for Paul” is not the dog-eared isolationism card but “to be tagged as no different from an Obama-Kerry liberal.”

The charge is absurd, even in the most literal sense. Obama initiated a war in Libya with even less congressional input than Bush had on Iraq and which was, on a much smaller scale, a comparable fiasco. John Kerry, famously for it before he was against it, of course voted for the Iraq war.

But partisanship is what makes the world of politics go round, and for most Republicans it makes sense to pretend the surge retroactively saved the Iraq war and everything was fine until Obama pulled out the troops. (To the extent the surge actually did succeed—by creating conditions that allowed the U.S. to withdraw without humiliation and giving the Iraqi government a chance, however small—it wasn’t the success its supporters envisioned.)

Paul has worked hard to make anti-interventionist arguments accessible to the Republican base while also differentiating himself from the neoconservative caricature of a functional pacifist (even if the latter sometimes annoys his foreign-policy allies).

Paul has also joined the debate over Ronald Reagan’s legacy, not because Reagan was a noninterventionist but because Republican presidents like him—from Eisenhower to Bush 41—received advice from a more diverse set of foreign-policy voices than dominate GOP circles today and did not always listen to the most hawkish among them.

It’s a winnable debate, but Rand Paul like the United States cannot go it alone.

W. James Antle III is editor of the Daily Caller News Foundation and author of Devouring Freedom: Can Big Government Ever Be Stopped? [8]

20 Comments (Open | Close)

20 Comments To "How to Reform Republican Foreign Policy"

#1 Comment By arrScott On July 21, 2014 @ 7:21 am

According to Pew and CBS polls, it’s only in 2014 that a majority of Republican voters have ceased to believe that the 2003 invasion and subsequent occupation of Iraq was worth the cost, and then only by a slim margin. Even so, majorities or pluralities of Republican voters, depending on the question, say the United States should have kept combat troops in Iraq past 2011 and should intervene in Iraq today. And when you ask the broader question of whether the situation in Iraq is our problem, pretty much the only people who say “yes” are Republican voters.

Which is to say, there’s a flaw in the premise here. It is not the case that the Republican grassroots has admitted that the Iraq war and the foreign policy framework that led to it were mistakes and the great mass of chastened conservative voters needs only a tribune to give voice to its desire for foreign policy restraint. Rather, Republican voters prefer interventionism, and even more than they prefer interventionism, they prefer to vote for interventionist politicians. Senator Paul’s project, properly understood, is not a matter of reforming the Republican elite to reflect the opinions of Republican voters. Paul’s project is a matter of first, persuading Republican voters to change their opinions on a core issue of personal and political identity, and second, persuading Republican voters to accord this changed opinion primary status among all other preferences and values when casting primary and general-election votes.

#2 Comment By EliteCommInc. On July 21, 2014 @ 9:22 am

For me this is a so what. You don’t need a new approach to world ideas. every leadership has their own approach. The Iraq war did not occur in some vacuum policy of the GOP.

Sen Paul is attempting to hijack a revisionist version of history. Had it not been for 9/11, it is highly unlikely tat there would have been an invasion of the ME.

Israel is over reacting to the last round of tit for tats in which she routinely engages in overkill. But as they should realize they have spent their existence not only antagonized but doing a fair amount of antagonizing and provoking on their own from the very first moment of their return.

I am not sure the bear is all that loose. Russia is responding more that creating events. Anyone who thought she was going lie down and hide in a cave after the fail of Soviet Governance was kidding themselves. Unless there is evidence that MH17 was deliberately targeted by the Russians or the Ukrainians then it remains a tragic consequence of the insanity of war.

But Sen. Paul’s strange views on Israel undermines any case for some new strategic view that addresses the volatile shifts of international events is the kind of panic fostered or opportunism still rooted in fear. And that policy world view has been predominant since the cold war, reignited by 9/11

Predicated on that — there’s nothing new under the sun.

#3 Comment By Tim D. On July 21, 2014 @ 10:39 am

Republicans have disagreements on how to conduct foreign policy, but the bulk of the party are still in the interventionist camp of the party (e.g. McCain), as they have been for the last 40+ years. True, Republicans have opposed the interventions instigated by Obama, but it’s hard to take their opposition seriously since they oppose anything he does. Never mind the fact that he has continued many policies instigated by his predecessor, and that many Republicans have called for an expansion of items like NSA surveillance.

Rand Paul’s position has always been a minority one. Till the Republican party admits the errors of the Bush administration (e.g. legalizing torture), no reform will occur. I suspect Paul will win the long-term debate, but I think something like that will require another decade (or two) before Paul’s minority becomes the majority.

#4 Comment By balconesfault On July 21, 2014 @ 10:44 am

The polling on whether the GOP base has learned any lessons is far from conclusive, imo.

For example, as recently as last December in a CBS News poll 56% of Republicans responded yes to the question “Do you think removing Saddam Hussein from power was worth the loss of American life and other costs of attacking Iraq, or not?” (Strangely, 31% of Democrats said yes as well…). OTOH, a more recent NY Times poll indicates a big shift, with 63% of Republicans saying “not worth it” – compared to 79% of Dems. Perhaps that major shift is due to Glen Beck?

But the most important lesson from Iraq, imo, is wrapped up in this question from a 2013 CNN Poll: “Do you think the Bush administration deliberately misled the American public about whether Iraq had weapons of mass destruction, or not?”

76% of Dems concluded that Bush had intentionally misled the public … 75% of Republicans believe that the administration did not intentionally mislead people.

Sadly, while I’d like to believe that this is a matter of better judgment among Dems – I suspect that most of that differential is due to partisanship.

As long as our foreign policy is held captive by partisanship, we’re going to screw up a lot. It’s bad enough to have a national identity that’s been built up over a century that US greatness is based on our being able to go around the world and kick butt.

But thanks to partisanship (see the Iraq War Vote and the political fallout afterwards) willingness to go around the world and kick butt is regarded by the media far too often as a surrogate for one’s patriotism, on par with wearing a flag pin everywhere – but with much worse consequences on a geopolitical, economic, and humanitarian scale.

#5 Comment By Kasoy On July 21, 2014 @ 11:43 am

International interventionism is always wrong unless strongly requested by the foreign nation. Even then we have the UN whose very existence is based on arbitration of conflicts between nations to prevent wars. It is the UNs job to settle conflicts.

We hate the Russians for intervening in the Ukrainian internal conflict. But we easily justify us intervening in the mideast & Latin America.

Intervening in other nations affairs goes against our own principles of federalism where the states are empowered to decide their own affairs with minimal federal intervention. If we hate big govt, we should also hate big brother USA.

Only certain big US businesses & their political patrons are the beneficiaries of foreign intervention using our young soldiers as pawns to gain huge easy profits.

Lets not intervene in Ukraine unless our EU allies request us. Let the EUs taxpayers pay for peace & stability in their region. Let warring Muslim groups in Syria, Iraq & Afghanistan destroy each other. If fellow Muslims of Sunni & Shiite sects cant live in peace together, neither will they tolerate US soldiers to live among them.

#6 Comment By JP On July 21, 2014 @ 11:52 am

Lost in the recriminations of the Iraq invasion fiasco, was a legitimate point of view raised in the immediate aftermath of 911. Many thoughtful people opined that we slept through the 1990s; we allowed terrorism to spread, as well as host nations to get away with supporting terrorism.

Bush had a very narrow window to get it right; and a narrow as that political window was he and his advisers (and the entire nation) saw what needed to be done. The President blew it almost immediately. The Afghan Campaign should have been a short, yet decisive campaign designed to destroy Al Qaeda and punish the Taliban in Afghanistan (as well as the tribal leaders in Pakistan that supported them).

And we all know the dangers that an armed Iran posed to the world – and it still does. The 1996 Kobar Towers bombing; the bombings in Argentina, and support to Hezbollah and Hamas were very well known. Yet, Bush ignored Iran and decided to go for the “low hanging fruit” in Iraq – a position in hindsight that was foolish, if not reckless (both from a military and geostrategic point of view).

The old adage that nations do not have permanent allies, but they do have permanent interests should drive our foreign policy. Yes, it seems cynical; but it is a reality. This isn’t a call to interventionism or isolationism. Our interests should be the driving force behind of actions.

#7 Comment By W. James Antle III On July 21, 2014 @ 12:27 pm

The polling on Republicans and foreign policy is indeed mixed, but it appears a significant slice, if not a majority, of the base now believes Iraq was a mistake. Even if they are a minority, as some polls continue to show, still a higher percentage of rank-and-file Republicans think the war wasn’t worth it than top GOP donors who care most about foreign policy. That’s the only narrow claim I am making. My point is that this is modest progress, not a major breakthrough, and the base remains receptive to many hawkish arguments.

#8 Comment By LC On July 21, 2014 @ 1:10 pm

The US reminds me of the parasitic WASP that I recently saw on the nature channel. The Parasitic WASP bites another insect but instead of eating it or killing it…the Parasitc WASP lays its eggs inside and the larvae derive their nourishment from their host until the host dies. The host continues its daily activities in an zombie like routine unaware what is happening to it.

Does this not sound like the US? A nation who has had its borders unenforced (eliminated by proxy), a nation who has accepted free trade (but accepts an unlevel playing field with trading partners VAT taxes and currency manipulations) thus offering a tax subsidy to export its nations jobs, it pays for military defense for nearly all its allies and fights proxy wars for them, it offers the most expensive healthcare and educational system that delivers mediocre results, its culture is controlled by exploitative media that when necessary appeals to the most addictive base emotions which inturn rot the nation and the culture….and it enshrines special rights upon the very people that undermine the future of the nation.

Its not to say that our nation should not care and support the poor, the disadvantaged but one does so through community consensus not special interests of govt lobbies which have their immediate needs rather than the longterm needs of a nation.

In essense, the US is a walking dying Zombie that is incapable of self examination and self determination and self will. It seems that everything that the US does…does not come a dictate from a special interest like hollywood or banks or a foreign nation like Israel.

It scares me to think how such a nation can survive

#9 Comment By tzx4 On July 21, 2014 @ 1:35 pm

The attitude, found mostly among a substantial percentage of Right Wingers that war is a first resort rather than a last resort and is the proper course to take, is profoundly sad, angering and frightful to my mind.

There is so much more to conducting foreign relations in conflict situations than simply tossing bombs. Indulging in bombastic terms that anything other than tossing bombs is weakness. Unreal.

#10 Comment By balconesfault On July 21, 2014 @ 1:42 pm

@EliteCommInc. Had it not been for 9/11, it is highly unlikely that there would have been an invasion of the ME.

Says you. I say an administration loaded with PNAC signators was going to find a way to justify taking out Saddam … and if the Administration could twist enough GOP arms to pass Medicare Part D, they could have twisted enough arms to get their war.

Unless there is evidence that MH17 was deliberately targeted by the Russians or the Ukrainians then it remains a tragic consequence of the insanity of war.

No. You are being too kind to Putin. He gave incendiary devices to arsonists – when you do that it’s not an accident when they burn down a hospital or school. Russia has been at best wholly irresponsible here.

#11 Comment By EliteCommInc. On July 21, 2014 @ 3:44 pm

“The attitude, found mostly among a substantial percentage of Right Wingers that war is a first resort rather than a last resort and is the proper course to take, is profoundly sad, angering and frightful to my mind.”

In truth it took a 9/11 to push this notion as well.

#12 Comment By EliteCommInc. On July 21, 2014 @ 3:51 pm

“No. You are being too kind to Putin. He gave incendiary devices to arsonists – when you do that it’s not an accident when they burn down a hospital or school. Russia has been at best wholly irresponsible here.”

Two responses:

1. I don’t have any doubt tat Pres. Putin has supplied military support to the Ukrainians. They asked support in response to a violent coup, they got it.

2. While tragic, unless there is evidence that they knowingly targeted a civilian airliner, and this was not a careless error, then it remains one of those tragedies of war. It did occur over Ukrainian airspace during a time of conflict. It may have been careless not to ensure that the system had trained personnel, but even that is speculation. They may very well have been trained and proficient. That does not guarantee error free engagements.

If you have evidence otherwise bring it forward, and I will consider it.

Other than that, was is a nasty messy business best avoided.

#13 Comment By cameyer On July 21, 2014 @ 4:22 pm

I’d love to see Paul against Clinton in 2016.

#14 Comment By Clint On July 21, 2014 @ 4:24 pm

It also appears that many of the Republican grassroots , as well as the Democrat grassroots don’t seem to realize that the vast majority of a group, such as AIPAC are Democrats.

Time to wake up.

#15 Comment By EliteCommInc. On July 21, 2014 @ 5:43 pm

“Says you. I say an administration loaded with PNAC signators was going to find a way to justify taking out Saddam … and if the Administration could twist enough GOP arms to pass Medicare Part D, they could have twisted enough arms to get their war.”

Since the end of the first Gulf Conflict Iraqis and Kurds have been lobbying Congress democrat, republican or otherwise to return and remove Pre., Hussein. The have spent a good deal of money in lobbying the effort. They were onboard the Century for the New American Way anything that gave them an inside track. In the twenty years of lobbying they made very little progress save tilling and fertilizing the soil – the portrait of Saddaam Hussein as a Hitler reincarnated. But until 9/11 there was no spark that lit that fire. Not the oil for food revelations, not making weapons inspections difficult, Not Saddam’s spiking the price of his oil, not squashing the revolutionary attempts by the Kurds . . . nothing moved that needle beyond, Pres. Hussein was a bad guy. 9/11 provided the excuse to engage all manner of policy goodwill, even unrelated goodwill.

Your suggestion has little merit, because the admin. arrived amongst a good deal of rancor. The Florida voting debacle which ended up in the Supreme Court invited loud accusations that Florida conservatives had conspired against to squash votes. They stole the election, that was the environment in which the admin. arrived to suggest that they could have made a case for war given that environment of animosity is a very, very, hard case to make.

Even after 9/11, the case demanded a full frontal media assault, and a visit to the UN by the chief executive. Minus 9/11 they did not have the credibility to launch such an endeavor. And had General Powell not made signed on, it might not have happened, but 9/11 sent the country into an emotional tailspin. Amid the fears of terrorist cells, and anthrax scares, etc. There is little doubt that admin could not have made the case.

Note: even Medicare Part “D” was on the coat tails of a slew of policies one right after another PA, HMS, Afgahnistahn Invasion, Iraq, Transportation Bill, Med part “D” . . . The only major legislation that did not pass was the attempt to privatize SSC. A program itself born out of economic and environmental crisis.

I think the evidence weighs heavily against you that minus 9/11 there was enough executive credibility or warrant for the admin. to invade anywhere.

Giving super powers to the admin serves those who seek excuse to blame them for all manner of ills. An admin. best friend is a catastrophic event not associated with cause by them to garner political capital and legislative goodwill.

#16 Comment By Wes On July 21, 2014 @ 7:12 pm

J.P., you wrote this: “Bush had a very narrow window to get it right; and a narrow as that political window was he and his advisers (and the entire nation) saw what needed to be done. The President blew it almost immediately. The Afghan Campaign should have been a short, yet decisive campaign designed to destroy Al Qaeda and punish the Taliban in Afghanistan (as well as the tribal leaders in Pakistan that supported them).”

Sebastian Junger, the filmmaker behind the frontline Afghan War documentaries Restrepo and Korengal, recently said in an interview on MSNBC that the U.S. should have had at least 40,000 troops in Afghanistan during the early years of the war. Instead, the U.S. had a light-footprint in Afghanistan until 2008 when Bush began surging troops there which was continued by Obama in 2009. The light-footprint strategy in Afghanistan was due to the fact that the Bush administration was afraid to send too many troops to the “graveyard of empires.” But if we had had more troops in Afghanistan early on, then that country probably would be in better shape today.

J.P., you also wrote this: “And we all know the dangers that an armed Iran posed to the world – and it still does… Yet, Bush ignored Iran and decided to go for the “low hanging fruit” in Iraq – a position in hindsight that was foolish, if not reckless (both from a military and geostrategic point of view).”

We’re all aware of the past and ongoing dangers posed by an armed Iran. But we should also remember the dangers posed by an armed Iraq under Sadddam Hussein. Iraq under Saddam Hussein invaded both Kuwait and Iran, not that Iran was at all a saint in its war with Iraq. But modern Iran has never actually invaded a country yet, though of course it has fomented violence throughout the Middle East. It doesn’t matter that Iran was the mutual enemy of the U.S. and Iraq. Letting Iraq and Iran both be ruled by repressive regimes with imperial ambitions and fight each other in a long brutal war or be under the constant threat of one is not good foreign policy

#17 Comment By Chris Travers On July 21, 2014 @ 10:53 pm

I think the surge did save Iraq to some extent because it was tied to political reforms which demanded that the Iraqi government monopolize their national defense. Things weren’t fine until we pulled out our troops and we never should have gone to war, but I supported the surge (though not the war) because the alternative was to abandon the Iraqi people to a mess of our own creation.

The thing though is that the Republicans generally put the blame on the wrong actions regarding the subsequent destabilization of Iraq. The fact is that civil wars destabilize neighboring countries and so the US support for Syrian rebels has ultimately caused the sorts of problems in Iraq that they are not prepared to deal with, on top of the urgent problems they need to deal with as well. This is not a good situation. But the GOP understanding of the problem is wrong. It was our involvement in Syria that caused problems, not the lack thereof. Consequently the GOP tries to humiliate Obama for not doing *enough* to destabilize the region.

#18 Comment By Sunrise Gypsy On July 21, 2014 @ 11:26 pm

LC: Kudos for your remarks. The “U.S. as a zombie” couldn’t be more appropriate. Start learning Chinese, people: THEY are the future!
If there’s one person on this forum who believes that Rand Paul will make a viable presidential candidate, they’re delusional. His father, on the other hand, had support from the right, left and everywhere in between—but the Republicans ignored him. (And he must be dying of shame over his son’s whoring for Israel.)
Clinton—and no, I don’t like her—would beat Rand Paul into an unrecognizable pulp were they to go head-to-head.
Gypsy

#19 Comment By Clint On July 23, 2014 @ 12:19 pm

Sunrise Gypsy:

I do.

Rand Paul is tied with Hillary Clinton in the latest NBC News/Marist Iowa Polling at 45% and trails Clinton in latest NBC News/Marist New Hampshire Polling 43% to 46%.

#20 Comment By Victor Tiffany On July 24, 2014 @ 5:45 pm

“It’s a winnable debate, but Rand Paul like the United States cannot go it alone.”

When there is divergence in policy prescriptions, it should be elections that end up deciding the direction of the country (domestic and foreign). However, because the donor class wants a highly militarized foreign policy, that is what we will have regardless of the Party in the White House.

This is what Eisenhower warned us about in his Farewell Address, but voters have yet to pay heed. Thus, the U.S. is an over-stretched empire teetering on an inevitable collapse if history is any indication.